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History of Wallingford in the Royal County of Berkshire
by David Nash Ford


Saxon Planning Lives On

This was one of the Burghs established by King Alfred the Great in the nineth century. Some, like Wallingford, were new towns; some were old Roman settlements; others were set up in Iron-Age Hillforts. All were carefully planned with precise street-grids and high fortifications. Wallingford had a stockaded bank, 3300 yards long, that can still be clearly seen in places. Like other burghs, it appears to have had a church at one of its entrances: St. Leonard's which still incorporates some Saxon work in its walls. These places were centres of trade and habitation, but large areas appear to have been left vacant. This is explained by their other major use as places of refuge for the rural population during times of Danish attack. Like many of the Burghs, Wallingford also had a royal mint. It grew quickly and became the Saxon County Town of Berkshire. Its importance can be gauged from an interesting find from within the town walls: an ivory seal belonging to Godwin the Thegn. Bearded Godwin is featured below the seated Trinity trampling the Devil. The reverse has been reused by one Godgytha the Nun. It is unlikely to have had anything to do with the infamous Earl Godwin of Wessex, though it may be mid-eleventh century in date.

The name is unlikely to derive from the Celtic Gual-hen-fforda or "Wall(ed Town) by the Old Way". There is no evidence to suggest that the massive banks of King Alfred's Burgh had any origin in Roman or pre-Roman times. The name is probably Saxon for "Welsh People's Ford". Whichever you choose, the indications are that the area was a British stronghold long after the Saxons took over the country.

After William the Conqueror had won the Battle of Hastings, one of the first places he made for was the fortified town of Wallingford, where the Saxon lord, Wigod, supported his cause. While there, he received the submission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and attended the wedding of Wigod's daughter to one of William's favourites, Robert D'Oyley of Liseux. D'Oyley built Wallingford Castle, a motte and bailey affair, between 1167 & 1171. He spent much of his time acquiring land, mostly at the expense of the church. The monks of Abingdon were eventually forced to conspire against him and pray for his repentance. He fell ill and was warned in a dream to mend his ways. Afterwards, he began endowing many churches and monasteries, including Wallingford Priory. D'Oyley's daughter married Brien FitzCount, the unwavering follower of the Empress Matilda in her struggle with her cousin, Stephen, for the English throne. He was one of only two landed lords to immediately join her cause. In 1141, Matilda had to make a daring escape from the besieged Oxford Castle. She slipped out at night and abseiled down the castle walls with only three loyal knights. Dressed in white, they made their way through the snow covered countryside, crossed the frozen Thames on foot at Abingdon, then by horse to Wallingford and safety. People who saw them in the night thought they were ghosts! Later, when Matilda's son, the Henry II-to-be, arrived in the town, the two sides negotiated and signed the peaceful Treaty of Wallingford (1153) by which it was decided Henry would succeed to the throne after King Stephen's death.

The castle later expanded and gained high stone walls, and also town walls atop the Saxon banks. Prince Richard, Earl of Cornwall & Holy Roman Emperor held the castle for much of the reign of his brother, Henry III. He spent a fortune on lavish entertainment and building works, making Wallingford his favourite home. Then, when he almost drowned at sea, he swore to spent all his money on the church. He is quoted as having said, "Would that it had pleased God that I had expended all that I have laid out in the Castle of Wallingford in as wise and salutary a manner". In 1335, the castle was granted to the Black Prince, and it was his principal residence, when he was in the country that is. His wife, Joan the Fair Maid of Kent, died of a broken heart at Wallingford, when her son, Richard II, condemned his half-brother, John Holland, to death for the accidental murder of a court favourite. In the end the unfortunate Holland was given a reprieve, but it was too late for poor Joan. Her will was written at Wallingford and she may have been buried in the Priory, though other sources say her body was taken to Stamford (Lincs). The hated Piers Gaveston, a rather too close a friend of Edward II, was made Lord Wallingford in 1307 and given the castle for services rendered. He is noted for holding a magnificent tournament here which all the nobles of the land were obliged to attend. Fair Katherine, Queen of Henry V, retired to Wallingford after her husband's death. Her son, Henry VI, was educated here, and it was at the castle that the Queen was seduced by his squire, Owen Tudor. Owain's father was a cousin of Owain Glyndwr (Prince of Wales) and his paternal grandmother was 4xgreat grandaughter of Gryffydd ap Lord Rhys, the last King of Deheubarth (South Wales). Together they became the grandparents of King Henry Tudor.

The castle ruins stand today within a lovely walled park, created by the Borough Council, off Castle Street. There is little in stone to see except the remains of the tower of St. Nicholas' Collegiate Church which stood within the castle walls. Climb the motte and you can see the footings of some more walls with two small sections in the fields to the north. The whole is very well laid out and you get a fine view of the town.

The following were born at Wallingford Castle:

  • Prince Richard of Cornwall, b.1246, son of Prince Richard, Earl of Cornwall & Holy Roman Emperor

The following died at Wallingford Castle:

  • Prince William, Count of Poitiers, d.1156, aged 2, eldest son of King Henry II
  • Prince Richard of Cornwall, d.1246, aged 1 month, son of Prince Richard, Earl of Cornwall & Holy Roman Emperor
  • Princess Joan of Kent, d.1385, wife of Prince Edward "The Black Prince", Prince of Wales, mother of King Richard II & daughter of Prince Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent

During the Civil War, the Castle was fortified for the King and two heavy cannon were stationed in the town. It was the last Royalist stronghold in the whole country to fall. When finally captured, Cromwell ordered it to be totally demolished.

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